Virginia Woolf is a bit like Marmite. Not a conventional way to open a discussion about Mrs Dalloway, perhaps, but I stand by it. Her distinctive, stream of consciousness style tends to polarise readers – you either love it or you hate it (see the Marmite connection now?). I have to admit that, having previously read and enjoyed To the Lighthouse, I fall firmly into the love camp.
That’s certainly not to say that Woolf is always an easy read. Her style often requires an effort of concentration, but any work put in more than pays off. Thought processes are compared more than once throughout the course of Mrs Dalloway to a bird hopping from branch to branch – the exact quotations elude me – and that is a very fitting simile for the experience of reading Woolf. She is a master at replicating the rapid, flighty and sometimes random fluctuations of thought, transporting readers deep into the minds of her characters while maintaining a third person narrative voice. How she does it I’m not quite sure, but it is an art to be marvelled at.
Reading Woolf reminds me of a speech from the end of the first act of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. It is one of the most moving and insightful moments of a play that tends to focus – quite brilliantly, it must be admitted – on being simultaneously funny and clever. Hector, giving an individual lesson to Posner, describes the way in which literature can reach out to you and communicate a thought that exactly mirrors a thought you have had yourself, ‘as if a hand has come out and taken yours’.
Woolf is continually extending hands to readers, showing human nature in all its conflicting and complex reality. We are complicated beings with contradictory and often selfish motivations, something that Woolf is remarkably honest about. Her characters are all slightly eccentric, but they are realistic in their eccentricities. Individuals in Woolf are laid completely bare, revealing how we are all essentially slightly odd in our own unique ways.
Clarissa Dalloway, the central protagonist, appears controlled and conventional on the surface, but hidden beneath that polished exterior is a rich emotional life. She is a politician’s wife, perfect hostess and confident socialite, but during a day in the company of her thoughts we learn how much she lives in the past and discover some of her buried psychological issues. By delving into the thoughts of her heroine, Woolf can be far more frank than would otherwise be possible, disclosing details such as Clarissa’s occasional attraction to other women and her continuing attachment to a childhood sweetheart – scandalous thoughts for a respectable married woman to be having in 1923.
Contrasted with Clarissa and also presented as a sort of double is Septimus Warren Smith, a First World War hero who is suffering from deep psychological damage. He is an illustration of what happens when the internalised becomes external, when control is not maintained and a person becomes classified as mad. It is clear to readers that Septimus is suffering from a classic case of shell-shock, but he is either misdiagnosed or shamefully neglected by doctors. While Woolf’s portrayal of a traumatised character is skilful, her point is slightly lacking in subtlety. Very much as the pointed Oedipal relationship between James and his father in To the Lighthouse picks up on Freud’s theories, Woolf is clearly taking up a very current issue in a Britain still painfully feeling its war wounds.
For a novel that encompasses less than twenty four hours, Mrs Dalloway is extraordinarily rich and textured. Rather than plot, what becomes important in this mini masterpiece is the tide of memories, which pull particularly strongly on Clarissa. Woolf’s book, although it seems on the surface to be a closely focused study of a few characters, deals with a number of wider questions: the difficulty of recovering after an event on the scale of the First World War, both for individuals and the nation, how to cope with emotional scars, what love really means, how a relationship is sustained – I could go on and on. But most of all it reaches out that hand and pulls you head first into a perfectly constructed psychological world.